Never lacking for beauty but always straining for credibility, the screen version of Delia Owens’s bestselling novel Where the Crawdads Sing is salvaged by a poignant performance by its lead actor.

Olivia Newman’s film, written by Lucy Alibar, is set in North Carolina in 1969. Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Kya, who has grown up in the bayou and is known pejoratively as the “Marsh Girl”. When Kya is accused of murdering her ex-boyfriend Chase (Harris Dickinson), among the few people who believe in her innocence is her lawyer Tom (David Strathairn).

Kya’s status as an object of suspicion is traced to her childhood. She has practically raised herself after her mother and older siblings flee her abusive father. Rather than taking Kya with them, each of her family members walks out one by one.

It’s Kya first test of survival. When her father leaves too, Kya somehow gets by with the help of a kindly store-owning couple and nature for company. It’s apparently easy-peasy to trade mussels for grits and live all by yourself despite being barely solvent and uneducated. Literacy – and love – arrive in the form of Tate (Taylor John Smith), followed by Chase, until tragedy strikes.

The music video for Richard Marx’s 1990s hit Hazard covered the same ground as Where the Crawdads Sing, but far more succinctly. The uncanny physical similarity between Kya’s boyfriends is a minor problem compared to the bigger question of just how Kya navigated herself from childhood to adulthood. What should have been the emotional crux of the film takes second place to the courtroom drama, which is flat and uninvolving.

Apart from gorgeous visuals of the North Carolina bayou and a committed performance by Daisy Edgar-Jones, Where the Crawdads Sing is a muddle through the marsh. There’s even a ridiculous twist that nobody could have seen coming because it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Where the Crawdads Sing (2022).